The revelation that people were disappearing into more worlds than just the [Fallen Kingdoms] and the [Crystal Stars] wasn’t unique knowledge for long. Marcus, Anna, Beth, and Astra were back in the ice cream truck Astra had “commandeered” from somewhere for their return trip to the EE offices when the news broke over the radio. That the same news had spread across the social media services a half hour earlier didn’t seem to bother the radio host any more than it bothered the social media influencers that they were an hour or so late to spreading information that was widely circulating on Discord servers, game forums, and other online communities the world over.
“I’m surprised we don’t have mass chaos at this point,” Anna said, looking up from her laptop.
“It’s coming,” Astra said. “People are still in the disbelief stage of processing this.”
“Any chance we get this shutdown before that changes?” Marcus asked. He’d borrowed a laptop from one of Anna’s colleagues and was shocked to discover that the phone they were tethering to for internet access seemed to have as much bandwidth as a fiber optic line.
“Any chance? Sure,” Astra said. She was polishing a knife that didn’t seem to be made out of metal, bone, ceramic, wood or plastic. “It’s possible it’ll all be resolved before we get back to EE.”
“And the chance that it gets shutdown with the Earth still in one planet-sized piece?” Anna asked.
“Oh, smaller to be sure,” Astra said. “If you want some advice though? Don’t worry about what your chances are. They’re basically meaningless.”
“That’s the opposite of encouraging,” Marcus said, though he was beginning to suspect the assumption that they had even a small chance of winning was overstating things.
People were trying to manage the nightmares that beset the world. Alone. In groups. With the power of laser canons and the power of magic and the Power of Rock. It was an incredible, unbelievable effort.
And it was failing.
Marcus didn’t need Beth, or Astra, or Jin to tell him that but from how they dodged his questions with indirect answers it was clear, and from how more and more instances were being reported, it was certain.
If humanity had been able to get ahead of the the Ragnarock tide that was surging across the world, the disappearances would have stopped, or at least be slowing down. Instead the opposite seemed to be true, with more being reported every hour.
“She doesn’t mean you can’t win,” Beth said.
“Of course not,” Astra said. “If this world was already lost, we wouldn’t be here anymore.”
“Where would you go?” Anna asked.
“Home,” Beth said.
“Wait, are you aliens?” Anna asked.
“No, I’m from Earth,” Beth said.
“She is, I’m not,” Astra said. “The places we’re from though? They’re not anywhere you can get to from here.”
“Uh, that doesn’t make any sense?” Marcus said, redirecting his attention from the doom scroll of info on his social media feeds to the conversation in the car.
“You know how your world is bound to the [Fallen Kingdoms] and the [Crystal Stars]?” Beth said. “There are bridges of imagination that link them together. There’s something similar with my world and yours, except instead of a bridge, picture a tightrope made of thread.”
“I can envision that but I have no idea what it actually means,” Anna said.
“It means, we’re here to help, and it wasn’t easy getting here,” Astra said.
“Also that we’re a bit more limited than we usually are in what we can do to help, and how much we know about what’s going,” Beth said.
“So what’s your home like?” Marcus asked.
“Pretty similar to this place,” Beth said. “Apart from the ‘being eaten by monsters from outside of time and space’ thing. We’ve got cars, and cities, and pizza, and TV, the same as you do. If you looked you’d probably find a lot of subtle differences – cities with the wrong name, different brand names on shoes and fast food and stuff like that, but the truth is even on planets where everyone is a bug-eyed alien and the sky rains chocolate syrup, people are still just people. We’re all just kinda messed up and figuring things out as best we can.”
“Comforting, although now I’m worried we’re going to have deal with chocolate syrup rain too,” Marcus said.
“The bug eyed aliens thing doesn’t bother you?” Anna asked.
“Nah, bug eyed aliens playing my game would just mean wider accessibility options in our next release,” Marcus said. “I can get behind that.”
“An open mind like that makes a lot of this easier,” Beth said. “Even so though, it probably will get to be too much. When you wind up feeling like you need to do something drastic, just remind yourself that this is a lot more than you’re supposed to have to deal with and that your reactions are going to be a little off.”
“And that’ll help us stay sane?” Anna asked.
“That’ll help you make the best choices you can under the circumstances,” Astra said.
“I know that doesn’t sound like much, but your choices do matter,” Beth said. “That’s what Astra was saying about your chances being irrelevant. If you look at the pure probability of events happening, it’s easy to give up because winning, or even surviving, looks so unlikely. The future’s not made from what’s likely though. It’s built on choices.”
“I can think of a few hurricanes that would disagree with that assessment,” Marcus said.
“Storms are always going to come,” Beth said. “Things we didn’t, and couldn’t expect. That doesn’t mean that our choices in the face of them don’t matter though. Choosing to keep the levees in good repair? Choosing to evacuate early? Choosing to stay and help your neighbors weather the storm? Those all determine what the future will be, in some cases a lot more so than any storm ever could.
“I keep hoping there’s going to be some big reset switch we could hit,” Anna said. “Or something like a server rollback that would rewind things to before this all started.”
Marcus chuckled at the idea. “Can you imagine the support calls we’d get for rolling back the whole world?”
“There’s only one tiny problem with the idea of a reset,” Beth said.
“No one’s been making backups of the real world that we could roll back to?” Marcus asked.
“Okay, two tiny problems,” Beth said.
“Ah, yeah,” Anna said. “There’s no point rolling back to an earlier version if you don’t know what caused the problem in the first place. We’d just wind up right back here when the problem resurfaced.”
“And if we figure out how to fix the problem, we wouldn’t necessarily need a rollback anymore. More like a hotfix,” Marcus said.
“Hopefully that’s what we’ll find back at your office,” Beth said.
“Why do we think we’d find the answer there?” Anna asked. “Or anywhere at all really?”
“The EE servers are our best link to the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Astra said. “They’ve been working on the problem there for longer than we have here. A lot longer.”
“What do you mean ‘a lot longer’? Did the problem start there before the [World Shift] expansion went live?” Marcus asked.
“There’s a time rate difference between the two worlds,” Beth said. “Sometimes at least. What’s been several hours for us has been days and weeks for them.”
“Wait, why wasn’t it like that when the expansion went live?” Marcus asked.
“Time’s not exactly stable at the moment,” Astra said.
“If we’re still out of synch though, how are we going to communicate with the people over there?” Marcus asked.
“The [Fallen Kingdoms] should come back in synch with us before too much more of our time has passed,” Beth said. “Even before that though, the folks over there have been sending us all the information they can.”
“If they’ve found something that can help, even if they’re not aware of it, it should be somewhere in the correspondence they’re sending back,” Astra said.
“Should we be checking the [Crystal Stars] servers too?” Anna asked.
“They’re still synched up with our time rate,” Beth said. “They might find things too, but right now they’re busy fighting off the first wave of breakthroughs that called them there.”
“What about the other, places I guess?” Marcus asked. “How do we collect info from people who jump into [Wonderland] to battle the [Armageddon Beasts]?”
“That’s harder,” Beth said. “In many cases those will be solo battles. The people who wind up fighting them may not even know that anything larger is happening at all. At least not until they get back and see the news.”
“If they get back,” Astra said. “You two did really well against your [Armageddon Beast]. Not everyone is going to.”
“Will they be alone?” Anna asked. “I mean if they go into something like the story from a book, or, I don’t know, you said some people might be fighting these things into albums, or songs?”
“On the one hand, we’re all in this together,” Beth said. “So no one is really alone.”
“Also, while you might read a book or listen to a song alone, there is a shared experience there with other people who like the same book or listen to the same song,” Astra sad. “So it’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t be fighting alone at all.”
“How would that even work though?” Anna asked. “With our games, people have an avatar within the world already. What would they have within a book? Or even worse, a song?”
“There’s all sorts of possibilities,” Beth said. “With a song, people might connect with the singer, or with the character the song is focused on. Or they might put themselves in the position of one of the instruments, or even a roady who’s just along to enjoy the show. It’s just a question of which role calls to them, and who they feel a connection to.”
“We need someone to jump into a church hymn and feel personally connected to God,” Anna said.
“Are you sure you want some with enough ego to think they’re actually God to also be the conduit for the power of all Creation?” Astra asked.
“Point taken,” Anna said.
“I’m kind of surprised that hasn’t already happened?” Marcus said.
“I would bet some people who think they’re God, or God’s best friend, or can speak for God have crossed over into a song, or a book, maybe even a bible,” Beth said. “From what we’ve seen in the [Fallen Kingdoms] though, that’s not going to work out well.”
“How so?” Anna asked.
“They’d become [Disjoined], wouldn’t they?” Marcus asked.
“If they were lucky,” Beth said. “The alternative is that they’d be swallowed whole and ground down into nothing.”
“I don’t understand that,” Anna said. “Why would they become [Disjoined]? If they really believe something, shouldn’t it become true in whatever made-up place they go to?”
“It’s not only about what they believe on this world. It’s what the other part of themself on the other world believes too,” Beth said. “If the two parts of the person can’t accept each other, if one part is so toxic or hateful that the other rejects it, then the resulting persona is [Disjoined], which as we’ve seen isn’t a terribly stable state. Best case, the two fission and are left back where they originally were.”
“Worst case, they crumble completely, and dissolve back into static and then nothing,” Astra said.
“Can they be saved?” Marcus asked.
“Possibly. For some of them,” Astra said.
“The trick is convincing them that they want to be saved,” Beth said. “Getting people to admit that they were wrong and need to change is difficult at the best of times, and when their minds aren’t stuff full of static.”
Marcus was going to make a comment on how it felt like his brain was always full of static when a text interrupted his train of thought.
Staring at it, he read it again, and then again.
“What is it?” Anna asked, noticing his sudden silence.
“Hey, get to the office asap,” he read aloud. “We’ve got someone who came back and he says he knows how to end this whole problem..”